“I would have chosen Mao Zedung who also murdered millions in the cause of atheism, but I didn't suppose his face was so instantly recognisable.”
This theist propensity to equate Communism with atheism and vice versa is a function of two things; basic lack of understanding of what Communism is, and what atheism isn’t.
Joseph Stalin killed millions. A psychopath and paranoid, he embodied the strong man, iron fisted methods used by tyrants to retain power since time immemorial. One need only to think of the biblical story of the Pharaoh killing all first born Hebrews to understand. Pharaoh didn’t kill them because he was a pagan, or even because they were Hebrews. He killed them to prevent a leader from emerging who would free the Hebrews; thus to insure his powerbase and Hebrew’s continued enslavement. How do we know this? Because had it been intended to eradicate the Hebrews he wouldn’t have stopped with just the first born.
While Communism embraces atheism it does so in order to establish the State as the sole religion, it’s a substitute religion with the tyrant as its primate. It also recognized that the church had a cohesive effect on the peasantry and thus represented a threat to the State’s exclusive power. Stalin never killed in the name of “godlessness”, he killed in the name of retention of one man rule, and the omnipotent power of the State.
“Uncle Joe” didn’t just single out the religious for his murderous purges. He feared intellectuals, homosexuals, and anyone with a political perspective different from his, including differing interpretations of communism [note the similarity to the Church’s persecution targets for centuries, and its distain for rival sects like the Cathars]. He had Trotsky removed and ultimately killed among thousands of other potential rivals.
Was this because of his lack of belief in God/gods? Was his rallying cry to his faithful followers “kill the theists in the name of atheism”? Hardly. Theists weren’t even the primary concern. One may as well blame Stalin's education in a seminary for his genocidal acts.
Then theists will say: “OK fine, but Stalin, and Mao represent a lack of morality and ethics that results from the rejection of God and God’s laws.” But morality and ethics predate monotheism. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Chinese, and Persians had laws and a code of ethics and morality, as did every highly developed or developing civilization. And yet this scope of genocidal destruction by a King of his own people was unknown in pagan , pre Judeo-Christian times. Additionally, and more currently, we are all familiar with the Bureau of Prisons report that show criminality is much higher among US believers than non-believers, which, among other evidences, renders the claim of atheist lack of ethics and morality debunked.
Atheism is defined as “lacking belief in God or gods.” That’s all. There is no hierarchy, no belief system. Communism, like religion, has a hierarchy; it is an entire believe system with a focal point of worship (The State), a dogma, doctrine, and expectation of compliance to that doctrine with a threat of punishment for noncompliance. Communism then has much more in common with religion than it does with atheism.
To attribute Joseph Stalin’s, or Mao’s psychopathic tyrannical actions to their atheism, as opposed to their mental illness’, hunger for power, and fanatical devotion to their belief system is tantamount to attributing Edward I (“Longshanks”) murderous suppression of the Scots and Welsh to his theism (when only his persecution of English Jews can be attributed to his Christian beliefs).
This distinction and the logic it represents are largely lost on, or more precisely, ignored by religionists. After years of indoctrination that Communism=Atheism= Lack of Morality it’s an uphill battle to get them to admit the fallacy. But then understanding the facts, like understanding Evolutionary theory, doesn’t help their cause, so why should they?
Additionally, recognition of this reality wouldn’t give theists a counter argument for the many examples and millions of deaths attributable directly to religious fervor -- killing for Yahweh, or for Christ, executions of heretics, witches, et al.
No, they have no impetus to understand or reject their hackneyed Communism / atheist / morality confusion and delusion. So their self imposed stupidity marches on.